After watching the UNC system take multiple hits over the past week, I feel compelled to invoke one of my grandfather’s favorite malaphors: “You’ve buttered your bread—now lie in it.”
On Monday, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) voted to demote UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media to “provisional” status, stating that the school has fallen short in meeting the council’s standards for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
If the school doesn’t resolve its issues in two years, it will officially lose its accreditation, which could pose major challenges in the university’s ability to attract students and hire and retain faculty, as well as severely harm its respectability as an institution.
Many of the reasons behind the downgrade overlap with the findings of a report released several days before the ACEJMC announcement. Last Thursday, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a blistering report on the system that oversees North Carolina’s sixteen public universities, zeroing in on threats to academic freedom, breaches of shared governance standards, and the mishandling—and facilitation—of race-related issues.
“The University of North Carolina system is in trouble, and not the kind of trouble that record enrollments or good rankings can fix,” the report opens. “It is the kind of trouble that festers and spreads.”
The AAUP launched a special committee to prepare the report last September in light of the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure case at UNC-Chapel Hill. After conducting more than 50 interviews with UNC faculty, administrators, Racial Equity Task Force members, and former trustees, the committee found that the issues underlying the Hannah-Jones controversy spoke to a larger pattern of violations entrenched in the statewide system.
“There was a deep-seated sense of pessimism and resignation among the faculty members with whom we spoke—especially faculty members of color—and much evident pain,” the report reads.
Soon after the report was published last Thursday, the North Carolina Conference of the AAUP held a press conference behind UNC-Chapel Hill’s South Building to corroborate the investigation’s findings and discuss the “new era of political interference” in the UNC system.
“To put it bluntly, UNC is a lesser institution than it was when I started in 2008,” UNC-Chapel Hill Associate Communications Professor Michael Palm said at the conference. “There’s no question that each and every UNC campus has borne the brunt of political interference.”
According to the AAUP report, excessive intervention from state lawmakers began in 2010, when Republicans won the majority in both houses of the General Assembly.
“When the board of governors began wading into campus-level matters, it often did so in thinly veiled defense of the legislative leadership that had appointed its members,” the report reads, adding new appointees were “more interested in the political ideologies of campus actors and less experienced with higher education than their predecessors.”
The report goes on to highlight a lack of transparency and failure to seek faculty input in the appointments of chancellors and provosts at Eastern Carolina, Western Carolina, Fayetteville State, and Appalachian State Universities, as well as at UNC-Chapel Hill, where outspoken conservative Chris Clemens was appointed provost in a secretive and legally questionable meeting last December.
In examining institutional racism and threats to academic freedoms, the report focuses largely on UNC-Chapel Hill, stating that recent controversies over Silent Sam and the botched hiring of Hannah-Jones “reverberated throughout the system and, according to our sources, sent a message to faculty members of color across the system, making them feel unwelcome, undervalued, and insecure.”
The report also touches on the board of governors’ unexplained decision last year to not reappoint UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Eric Muller to the university’s Press Board, despite glowing recommendations and Muller’s two previous terms of service on the board. Muller, who has been outspoken about the university’s reluctance to remove Confederate monuments—and on the board of governors’ agreement to pay the Sons of Confederate Veterans $2.5 million to relocate the Silent Sam statue to an off-campus site—stated last June that he “would hate to think” the board of governors’ decision “had something to do with my public commentary.”
“Unfortunately,” the AAUP report reads, “it appears that that is precisely what happened.”
At the press conference, UNC-Charlotte Anthropology Professor Nicole Peterson offered a warning on what will happen if the system continues to reinforce institutional racism, saying that recent events have “led many exceptional people to leave, and we keep hearing about more people leaving.”
Another speaker, Hussman School Associate Professor Tori Ekstrand, noted that many of her “colleagues of color” were asked to share their experiences at the conference, but felt burdened and exhausted by repetitive requests to explain the system’s failings. (The conference’s speakers were all white.)
The report reflects on sentiments of some faculty members of color in the UNC system, describing them as “in a bind.”
“They could agitate against what they perceive to be a racist and inequitable system, hoping thereby to change it,” the report reads, “but in doing so they may jeopardize their own chances at advancement within the system, where they could work to overcome structural forms of inequity.”
Interviewees were largely pessimistic about the future of the state’s public universities, particularly in regard to faculty retention rates and the credibility, transparency, and independence of its governance. The report concludes that progress will only come from leadership that is “willing to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea of equity.”
A News & Observer opinion piece this week argued that the report’s most critical takeaway was what it didn’t include: comments from four of the UNC system’s top administrators. who declined to be interviewed. The UNC system president and Board of Governors chair, as well as UNC–Chapel Hill’s Chancellor and Board of Trustees chair, all declined to be interviewed for the report.
To close with another malaphor—in their silence, UNC’s leadership seem to be sending a message to the students and faculty who are suffering from its failed governance: “We’ll sit in our ivory tower while Rome burns.”
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